Smith & Gaston Funeral Home
Smith & Gaston Funeral Home (originally Smith & Gaston Funeral Directors) is a provider of funeral services located at 102 6th Avenue Southwest near Elmwood Cemetery in North Titusville. It began as an outgrowth of A. G. Gaston's Booker T. Washington Burial Society. Gaston entered an arrangement to use the services of African-American funeral director James Payne on an exclusive basis at a discounted rate.
In 1923, as an inducement to consent to giving away his daughter's hand, Gaston offered his prospective father-in-law, A. L. "Dad" Smith of Meridian, Mississippi, an opportunity to enter into a partnership under the name of Smith & Gaston. Smith's reputation and dignified carriage lent credibility to the business. The firm marketed itself by sponsoring Gospel programs on local radio stations.
A number of crises hit the partnership in the next decade. Payne was arrested for illegally hauling whisky in a funeral hearse, ending their arrangement and threatening access to the white-owned funeral home out of which Payne worked. Gaston made a bold offer to the owner of the funeral home, A Mr Bell, to buy it outright. The agreed price was fifteen thousand dollars, with $500 down payment and $150 due each month toward the total. That arrangement, however, was threatened when Bell's son, George, moved to repossess the funeral home and take control of the insurance business in the bargain. Through a combination of legal filings and subterfuge, Smith & Gaston managed to protect their interests, but had to re-incorporate the business.
Smith's death brought on another crisis, with his widow suing for access to the firm's books. Gaston panicked as the company had not kept good accounting records. Once again he made a bold offer, borrowing $50,000 to buy out Mrs Smith's interest. He repaid the loan within three years.
The business relocated from Fairfield to Birmingham in 1938. Gaston purchased a large house on the northwest corner of 16th Street and 5th Avenue North facing Kelly Ingram Park, and remodeled it with air conditioning throughout. The business was marketed as, "A 100 per cent Negro organization: The finest in the United States owned by Negroes employing over two hundred Negro youth."
In 1952 Smith & Gaston opened a second funeral home at 2531 9th Avenue North in Bessemer, managed by Howard Johnson, who purchased it in 1967 to start his own business. Another branch, the Smith & Gaston Southside Chapel on 6th Avenue Southwest, eventually became the business's sole location.
On June 4, 1956 the funeral home's chapel hosted a meeting of 11 pastors and laymen who outlined the "Declaration of Principles" for their new Civil Rights group, the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights.
Gaston sold the funeral home business to Thomas and Edna Gardner in 1980. It has since passed to their sons, Paul, Eric and Thomas Jr.
- Jenkins, Carol & Elizabeth Gardner Hines (2004) Black Titan, A. G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire. New York: One World/Ballantine ISBN 0345453476
- Smith & Gaston Funeral Home website